1842: Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 (#5) (SCOTTISH) in A minor

SUNDAY, November 15, 2020 – 12:38 AM

(Again, Covid is forcing changes. The players are spaced for safety. The players will not be used to this. But what does it do to the sound? It may be an improvement. The extra space seems to be producing an amazing sound. Interesting also is that apparently this is live because there is applause, a very warm reaction.)

Symphony No. 3 (#5) (SCOTTISH) in A minor

His last symphony…

You always want to know when things were written. It’s numbered wrong. He completed it five years before his death. Although he started working on it when he was much younger, he did not finish it until late in his life.


  • two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in Bb and A, two bassoons
  • two horns in C and A, two horns in E, F and D, two trumpets in D
  • timpani
  • strings

Klaus Mäkelä

1st movement with time stamps

I hope you find them useful. They actually helped me get a deeper grasp on what is happening.

  • 21:10 Andante con moto: There is an unusually long intro, and in fact that intro is a huge part this movement. That’s important because this first movement is very long, almost 19 minutes long. That’s about twice as long as some of Mozart’s entire symphonies. And you will hear this again at the end of the movement. It’s just brilliant. I could break this down more, but it would take too long.
  • 25:09 Allegro un poco agitato: End of intro, start of sonata form, 1st theme section, and that’s misleading. This is not agitated at all. It’s just a little fast, more like allegretto, and very genial. There is nothing new or original in the form so far, but what comes next is mind-blowing. Klaus takes this a bit on the slow side, very expressive and subtle because he can then speed up more.
  • 26:08 tempo change, Assai animato: That’s precisely when the “agitato” part starts, and this is not normal at all. You don’t normally change tempo in this section. How to do it – and how much – is up to the conductor. He speed up a lot, choosing to milk the change in feel. This is just perfect, what he does.
  • 26:39 Second theme section, change to E minor: There is no marking, so you just have to know where it is in the score. Again, the form itself is not unusual, so if you don’t know form you won’t even know if it’s typical or what not there. He is using a very tight plan to pull everything together. If you are not a musician, you just know it is right. It’s all just right. This is the genius. And note the recording, the way the timpani are highlighted. The sound is beyond belief. I have to almost believe that the extra distancing is making things clearer. They need to keep this when Covid is over.
  • 27:26 Circle of 5ths: And it goes like this: Em F#7 F#ø B7 Bø E7.Eø A7/E  D# dim right back to Em. It is one double morph after another. Virtuoso slithering. This is a cliche for us, the musicians, just a totally predictable pattern, but the way he uses it is so fantastic. I heard it once and instantly remembered it.
  • 27:51 summing up, closing : It slows down. It has to, because the repeat goes back to a part that is slower, but it’s not in the score anywhere. Nothing that is really important is in the score. This all took around 3 minutes. He’s getting ready to repeat the whole thing except the intro, so he has to get to E7. When is he going to do that? Because he’s firmly in E minor, the key and Em, the chord.
  • 28:33 Waiting, waiting, waiting for that E7 chord : He has to get there, then there it is –  that chord! So you’re listening and wondering, is he going to do it all again? Is it worth it? In this case, yes!
  • 28:42 Play it again Sam: There’s a repeat, and everything after the intro that you heard you now here again.
  • 32:01 SAY WHAT?!? Sure, it’s the development. It’s play time. But C# minor? That’s so unexpected. He ended on an Em chord in the expo, then lurched to C#m. This is totally radical. That’s right out of Darth Vader, but this is 1842, not the latter half of the 20th century. Awesome move. You just know that what happens next is going to be free and original.
  • 37:50 A feast of diminished chords: Just as Dukas used augmented chords in his Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Mendelssohn here decides do do nothing but dim chord. If you don’t use the other time stamps, use this one and listen several times. This diminished sound and the music moving up and down is frequently used for storms.
  • 38:20 Back to A minor with an Am chord: It’s a fake. He’s not done developing yet.
  • 38:22 He liked those dim chords, so here they come again!: Well, it was too good not to repeat.
  • 38:40 Recap?: Or coda. Or end of the development? Hard to tell. Another big push in tempo. Is it in the score? Then he winds down. But what is really weird is that he doesn’t repeat the expo. That is very unusual. Instead he winds down.
  • 39:18 Back to the intro: Full circle. In fact, this whole movement is more of a tone poem, and he’s thinking about how transition to the next movement, which is light, playful, and has a strong Scottish feeling.

2nd movement

This is a pretty short movement, and it’s famous. The move to F major is interesting because A minor to C major is the default move, but I like F major better because it’s a one note morph, Am to F major. Only one note moves, very smooth. This movement  provides a great contrast with the long, serious 1st movement. there is a debate about whether Mendelssohn considered this symphony in any way “Scottish” by the time he was finished with it,  and that name was not his. But this movement definitely has the Scottish sound.

3rd movement

This time the move from F major to A major is a double morph, so very slick and very smooth. Even though the movement is listed as major, it spends a lot of time in minor, and that gives it a very serious feel. This is a fairly long movement, around 12 minutes long.

4th movement

Finally, the finish. No matter how good a symphony is, if the last movement is a disappointment, so his the whole symphony. The greatest composers either saved the best for last, or they saved something special for the ending. There is no disappointment here. It’s a great ending to a great symphony. Some thing the major and very upbeat ending was a bit of a cop-out, but I like it.

Score link:

The link is HERE, and it’s really easy to follow. I don’t like this recording as well, though it is very good, but it is invaluable for following along with the music. I downloaded the score, but it’s unreadable and impossible to follow on a computer screen. I thought of linking the music to this score, but the video was just more fun to link to.

It took a very long time…

Mendelssohn was initially inspired to compose this symphony during his first visit to Britain in 1829. He wrote:

“In the deep twilight we went today to the palace were Queen Mary lived and loved…The chapel below is now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there and at the broken altar where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in. I think I have found there the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.”

Mendelssohn continued to work on his initial sketches of what would become Symphony No. 3 while touring Italy. However, he struggled to make progress, and after 1831 he set the piece aside.

He may have returned to the first movement in the late 1830s, but he  did not complete the symphony until 1842.

The last symphony, not the 3rd…

It was the third to be published, and has subsequently been known as Symphony No. 3. Now, how did it get published before his 4th and 5th symphonies? I don’t know. I’ll have to find that out later. But it’s important to know that it’s the real 5th symphony, and often last symphonies are the best. That would be my evaluation here.

1 thought on “1842: Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 (#5) (SCOTTISH) in A minor

  1. Gary wrote:

    “Mendelssohn was initially inspired to compose this symphony during his first visit to Britain in 1829. He wrote:

    “In the deep twilight we went today to the palace were Queen Mary lived and loved…The chapel below is now roofless. Grass and ivy thrive there and at the broken altar where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything is ruined, decayed, and the clear heavens pour in. I think I have found there the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.””

    It amazes me when the composer leaves behind a thought on what sparked a song, or a movement, or a piece, or even just a few scales up the keyboard.

    Sometimes I think of squirrels chasing another when listening to Mozart. And here is Mendelssohn, telling you in good detail, where this particular music came from. And it doesn’t sound like a ruined building. To me it sounds like how the building was, once upon a time, when Mary Queen of Scots was crowned.

    The power to teleport you is music’s alone.

    As for the conductor and orchestra, bravo to both. I like the end result.

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